Dukes of Hazards

Life in general certainly has its hazard, no matter where you. I don’t believe that anyone who has travelled to developing countries would disagree with the notion that there are simply more risks in certain places in the world. In the West, we try our best to mitigate risk and make things as safe as possible. To that degree, we have whole sectors of business and government dedicated to managing risk.

Out here in the rest of the world, you are on your own. It is up to the individual to watch out for the minefields of life, sometimes quiet literally.

Here are some of the things that must be paid attention to:

Watch where you step. This might seem like a no brainer, but you’d be surprised at how accustomed one can become to a relatively level playing field. One thing that I notice all the time in Africa is that there is rarely symmetry in stairs. This means that one step might be huge, and then the next short. If you are used to standard stairs, this may throw you off badly.

Mind the Gap. Open gutters often abound. In Peace Corps we called the sport “gutter diving.” Luckily I’ve managed not to become victim myself, but I know friend who have gone in with bikes and simply been swallowed by them whole.

Watch what you eat. Some extra ants or bugs in the food is often just added protein around these parts, and actually doesn’t cause much reason for concern. However, there are plenty of ways to get sick in places like Africa. Some simple things you can do are pay attention to where the food is coming from (i.e. does the vendor have filthy hands?), always eat hot food while it is still hot (as this helps to reduce the likelihood of bacteria growing), wash your fruits and veggies well (or better yet peel), and use your gut (if you are thinking this might not be safe to eat, it might very well not be). I follow these simple cues that I learned in Peace Corps and I am very lucky to avoid tummy issues while traveling.

Mind the wildlife. Obviously Africa is known for having a fair bit of wildlife. Most of these can unfortunately only be found in game parks, but there are still plenty of factors in this category. As was pointed out in the snake park that I visited recently in Zimbabwe, there are plenty of these that can kill you quickly. Scorpions are the one that I had many run ins with as a Peace Corps Volunteer. In reality you are more likely to face hazards like leeches crawling into places you don’t want them, or that sort of thing. In fact, we had a hilariously told story of such an unfortunate incident to one of my team members here. While it was no laughing matter in reality, he had us crying with laughter at the tale of it. The cute little 2 month old lion that I’m holding in my profile photo also bit me, so be ware of who you decide cuddle with!

Mind the Mozzies. They might seem like a small threat, but there are 250 million cases of malaria annually, with one million deaths globally. Some people who travel a lot are blase about taking prophylaxis. I’m still a big proponent of prevention. I had a fellow volunteer who became one of those statistics, and I’d rather use the means available to me than to fall sick and not be able to do my job. Reminds me that I need to take my weekly pill today!

Be Prepared. As I posted on the other day, there are times when you need to improvise. Some common preparedness is always having something that will pass for toilet paper. I have the habit of hanging on to all of the extra napkins that I end up getting on flights and stashing them in my purse for later; they often come in very handy. Another folly that I’ve learned from, is to always turn on the water before touching the soap, as too often there is no water.

Learn to Balance. For women in particular, learning the art of hovering over nasty toilets or holes in the ground. We made jokes in South America that it got easier as you went, since starting in Ecuador you had to hover over toilets, but the further south we went, the toilets disappeared and it was easier to over a hole. My most famous experience in this art was in Fiji. I was in need of using the facilities, but they were themselves pretty nasty. The floor was soaked, and I couldn’t exactly put my pack down. This meant that I had to balance with my fifty pound pack while squatting. Not an ease feat, but good for the thigh muscles! Aside from the ick factor of many toilet seats, plenty of them (including my office here in DRC) have seats that are plastic and break easily. This means that they pinch your bum as well!

Beware of Scams. While you can be scammed anywhere, this tends to be easier when you are in a place that you don’t actually know the cost of something. Often it is is well meaning enough, just trying to get as much out of you as possible, but sometimes it can be more serious scams. You can certainly get screwed out of more money than you should be. To give an example, I bought a mask on this trip for a family member. The guy wanted $45 and I ended up paying $13.

It is not worth it. At the end of the day, if you do run into a situation of some kind. Give them what they want, as your life isn’t worth it. I travel with the guide that if I’d be heart broken if I lost it, I don’t bring it in the first place. I might have a relatively expensive camera, but it is replaceable.

Be careful of your heart. Now as a married woman I forget the landmines of love, but they were all over when I was a young single traveler. Relationships abroad are certainly part of the experience, but use common sense and protect yourself.

Use Common Sense. Above all, use your brain. If you are suspicious, then there is probably good reason to follow your gut. We called this the “stupidity tax” if you aren’t paying attention, you’ll likely end up sick and in a gutter.

Readers: I’d love to hear your tips on how to stay safe when traveling, or any fun tales about what can happen when you aren’t so lucky.

Safe travels,



  1. 'Drea on February 3, 2010 at 3:42 am

    Good tips. It’s nice to know that yoga and squats might come in handy one day.

  2. Jessica on February 14, 2010 at 9:54 am

    Very useful tips for me to use while I am in East Africa next semester! =) Love you and hope you are doing well!

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